Sat. Dec 3rd, 2022

Oscar-winning actor Morgan Freeman offered a yellow-gloved hand to a FIFA World Cup ambassador who suffers from a rare spinal disorder in a picture meant to represent inclusion in a country facing international criticism over its human rights record.

It wasn’t the biggest moment of Sunday’s seven-act World Cup opening ceremony ahead of the match between host nation Qatar and Ecuador. The loudest cheers were reserved for Middle East and African leaders watching from their luxury suites at the Bedouin tent-inspired Al Bayt Stadium.

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In fact, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani drew thunderous applause in a short speech delivered in Arabic from the suite.

“We worked hard, along with many people, to make it one of the most successful tournaments,” he said. “We have made every effort and invested for the benefit of all mankind.”

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He sat between FIFA president Gianni Infantino and his father, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, who secured the World Cup for the tiny Gulf nation 12 years ago.

“How beautiful it is for people to put aside what divides them to celebrate their diversity and what unites them at the same time,” Sheikh Tamim said, his words translated into English on a video screen inside the stadium.

“I wish all the participating teams a magnificent football show, high sportsmanship and a time full of joy, excitement and delight for you all,” he continued. “And let there be days that inspire kindness and hope.”

Then he said, “Welcome and good luck to you all,” the only words he spoke in English.

Click to play video: 'FIFA World Cup: LGBTQ+ treatment raises concerns over human rights record'

FIFA World Cup: LGBTQ+ treatment raises concerns over human rights record

Sheikh Hamad, considered the modernizer of Qatar during his 18-year rule, further delighted the crowd by autographing an official World Cup shirt presented to him by his son. Then he lifted his shirt to the audience.

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Qatar, home to 3 million people, mostly migrant workers, has spent more than $200 billion on preparations for the World Cup. Seven new stadiums were built, including the 60,000-seat Al Bayt Stadium north of Doha.

The opening ceremony aimed to introduce Qatar to the world through its culture with the theme “Bridging the Distance”. Creative director Ahmad Al Baker wanted the ceremony to mark “a gathering for all humanity, a call to come together as one, bridging all differences with humanity, respect and inclusion.”

“We have finally reached the opening day, the day you have been eagerly awaiting,” said Sheikh Tamim. “We will follow, and the whole world with us, God willing, a great football festival, in this spacious environment for human and civilized conversation.

“People of different races, nationalities, faiths and beliefs will gather here in Qatar and around screens on every continent to share the same exciting moments.”

His words hit home when Sheikh Tamim was joined in a suite at the stadium by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, two leaders who have boycotted Qatar for years. The leaders of Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, the other two countries involved in the boycott, were not present.

No major Western leaders were in attendance, as Qatar is under intense scrutiny for its treatment of migrant workers preparing the nation for the World Cup, as well as the LGBTQ community. Gay and lesbian sex is criminalized in Qatar.

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But among those who attended the opening match were UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, Senegalese President Macky Sall, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Rwandan President Paul Kagame.

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The heir to the throne of Kuwait, the director general of the World Health Organization and the president of Djibouti also came. King Abdullah II of Jordan was also present.

They listened to the likes of Jung Kook from BTS, while Qatari singer and producer Fahad Al Kubaisi debuted the single “Dreamers”, produced especially for the World Cup.

Then came the words of Infantino, who spoke in Arabic, Spanish and finally English to officially open the tournament.

“Dear friends, welcome, welcome to the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar,” Infantino said in English. “Welcome to celebrate football because football unites the world. Now let’s welcome the teams and let the show begin.”

As Tiesto’s “The Business” blared over the speakers, Qatar and Ecuador took the field and the World Cup officially began.

Qatar became the first host country to lose its first match in the 92-year history of the World Cup.

Qatar is on the world stage for the first time because it is the host, but it could not stop Ecuador’s captain Enner Valencia, who scored both goals in the first half.

© 2022 The Canadian Press